For me, one of the simplest arguments for having an altar rail along the sanctuary of the Church is an aesthetic one: it just looks better. It brings greater order to the division between sanctuary and nave; it sets off the area that is most sacred — the “holy of holies” — from the more common area; it is a visual reminder of boundaries, that we may not casually approach God. Think of Moses and the burning bush…
Well, obviously mixed up with all of that is a fair amount of subjectivity. It’s easy enough for someone to say the complete opposite and proffer their own personal reasons for it.
But another reason why altar rails resonate with me is because of my own childhood. We did not attend church, but “Church came to us” — the CCD classes came to our (public) elementary school, so the Catholic kids stayed after school one day a week for catechesis. That was how I made my first communion, which of course did require me to be in church a few times in the process of going to my first confession, probably a rehearsal for the first communion, then the big day itself. And I remember the rail. I also remember how the priest taught us very clearly that we were not to go in the sanctuary unless we had a serious reason to be there. He taught us boundaries. And as I recall, we received our first communion at the rail, by intinction. A couple of years later, a subsequent pastor would tear all that out and renovate the church. The church has since been sold and torn down.
OK, so now we have aesthetics and childhood nostalgia. Are there no other reasons?
This article from the National Catholic Register offers a theological perspective:
I was recently given another theological explanation of the action of receiving Holy Communion at the altar rail while studying the New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism with my daughter. And it blew my mind for about a week. We were in Lesson 28 on Holy Communion, directly following the lesson on the Sacrifice of the Mass, when I paused at this sentence: “At Holy Communion, when we go up to the Banquet Table (the altar rail), Our Lord comes to us.” I had always thought of the Banquet Table as the main altar where the priest makes present Christ’s sacrifice. It had never occurred to me that the altar rail was something more than a divider from the sanctuary, but that it is actually an extension of the altar—the people’s altar. It is the place where we bring our own sacrifices as we wait to be united in communion with Our Lord and with each other, the Church.
Such a viewpoint helps to explain the extraordinary detail and richness of the rail in the above photo, which I took in a church in the north of Italy — it is supposed to be as nice as the altar and made of similar materials, to emphasize the connection between the two.
An interesting phenomenon in recent years has been that of the spontaneous resurgence in interest in altar rails. Many of my parishioners have asked me if we could restore the rail in my parish — some have practically begged. Unfortunately, when it was torn out, it was done in a way that precious little trace of it remains; we would have to start from scratch to “restore” it.
Now these parishioners who are requesting this are not all traditionalists who would just assume go to a Latin Mass; no, they are from among all types of Catholics, young and old, convert and cradle. Yes, many of them are converts who used to kneel in their Lutheran and Episcopal churches to receive what was NOT the Real Presence of Christ — now they have the “genuine article”, but they may no longer easily kneel to receive! And some people do kneel anyway – on the bare floor, since we don’t have a rail.
I believe that it is a work of the Holy Spirit in our time, to bring about this increasing desire to kneel at the very moment when Christ comes to us in a most intimate way. Isn’t it otherwise incoherent, that we should kneel for the consecration but not kneel for holy communion? We kneel to pray before Mass and after in thanksgiving, but we don’t kneel to receive the very one to whom we are praying? (Yes, not all are able to kneel; clearly there are exceptions. I never cease to be amazed, either, how some consider the exceptional cases reasons to dispense entirely with what might be the norm.)
I was speaking with another priest recently who told of something that happened in his parish. There was an opportunity to kneel and several people took advantage of it. There was also a certain Mass here in my parish (daily, Novus Ordo, English) at which we still had a portable rail that had been brought in for a Latin Mass that I had celebrated the evening before; all but one person took advantage of the opportunity to kneel to receive at that otherwise ordinary daily Mass.
An interesting Lenten bible study topic would be to look at the postures of those who seek out Jesus throughout the gospels: many of them “fall down before him”, “kneel before him”, or show some other profound reverence in his presence.
I’m reminded of an experience of liturgical abuse I once had many years ago which, ironically, reinforces the sense that kneeling for holy communion is just so right. One summer I did the Crossroads Pro-Life Walk, and we were at a certain university campus, and the chaplain there celebrated Mass for us. He was from a religious order that was, let’s say, a bit more “progressive”. Liturgy was fairly flexible for him. But he was also extremely gracious to us and I think really just wanted us to have an experience of spiritual renewal. So he mentioned during the homily that he would kneel for the consecration rather than stand, because priests rarely get to kneel for holy communion. And that was how he did it. He said the Eucharistic Prayer while kneeling, and communicated himself that way. It was wrong, but I think we all readily forgave him…
But didn’t that (forgivable) liturgical abuse also reinforce the theological concept that I mentioned above? The rail is an extension of the altar. It’s normal to want to kneel to receive. Children especially seem to relish it — which says a lot to me. One of the most consoling things I encounter as a priest is the faith of children who have not yet been tainted by cynicism and ideology. May God keep them from it. May he help us all to become as children, also… for to such belongs the kingdom of Heaven.